6:00am

Tue July 26, 2011
Environmental Watchdog

Coal Ash: Electric Utilities React

“Okay, here’s our ash pond!” Steve Turner exclaims. He’s the general manager at Louisville Gas & Electric’s Cane Run Power Station, and he is giving Kathy Little and her husband Tony a tour of the plant. “You can see bottom ash, but it’s down at the water level, so it stays wetted.”  Cane Run is one of the two coal-fired power plants within the Louisville city limits, and both store byproducts, like coal ash, on site. LG&E has invited three nearby families to the plant to discuss the results of recent dust sampling. The Little family, as well as the Walkers and the Cunninghams, were invited because samples taken off their homes showed high concentrations of coal ash. LG&E is doing damage control.

Turner stands in a conference room in front of a PowerPoint presentation about the company’s operation.

“So to get started, this is the Cane Run site,” he said. “We are a generating facility. We generate electricity. And we do that safely, reliably and while complying with all of our environmental permits.”

But the people in the room want to talk about the ash. The first samples taken directly off their homes show alarmingly high amounts of fly ash. But the second set, gathered from the air, shows much lower levels. As Turner speaks, Debbie Walker shakes her head. She looks disgusted.
“Why don’t you live by it?” she demands.

“Well, the health issues…” Turner trails off.

“We can’t leave because nobody’s going to buy our places because of this dump,” Walker said. “If you don’t think it’s a health issue I ask anybody in this room to go live by it.”

“Well, again…”

“Well, yeah, that’s what I thought.”

But the company isn’t sure what to do about it. Cane Run is a coal-fired power plant, and it’s impossible to burn coal without creating coal ash.

The plant’s pond and landfill hold hundred of thousands of tons of coal ash and that amount is growing. It’s growing because Americans’ consumption of coal is rising—from 1989 to 2009, the amount of coal burned in the U.S. increased by more than 100 million tons.

New pollution control devices on power plants are exacerbating the problem. Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project says while these devices reduce air pollution, they increase the amount of waste.

“The more you try to control the emissions of a power plant, the more toxic the ash becomes and the more ash you generate,” he said.

As for Cane Run’s coal ash, LG&E says sampling was inconclusive and more testing is needed to determine whether the ash is leaving the site. If Metro Government decides it poses a nuisance to the plant’s neighbors, LG&E may be forced to take action.

LG&E is planning to stop putting ash in the current landfill soon…and start putting it in another, yet-to-be-built landfill. But if upcoming federal regulations make it too expensive to burn coal, the plant may switch to natural gas, or even shut down. Regardless, LG&E’s Mike Winkler says the coal ash will remain.

“It will stay,” he said. “Ultimately if this facility is closed from the standpoint of burning coal, then there are closure plans for landfills and ash ponds that you have to develop with the state, where essentially they’re capped with clay and then there’s monitoring that goes on associated with that.”

That doesn’t make Kathy Little feel better about living across from the landfill and pond. Especially since there’s nothing between the ash and the ground. She worries the groundwater is contaminated.

“They’ve put all this here,” she said. “Now are we going to have to live with this, with this toxic dump, is basically what it is. Even if they cover it up, it’s a toxic dump.”

But LG&E says it’s not a toxic dump, and the federal government hasn’t called it that either…yet.

For part one, click here.

Part three of this story will be published tomorrow.